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Last time we talked about how to sustain a successful long-term RPG campaign, covering scheduling, party size, prioritization, and leadership. One element I wanted to discuss, but didn’t have space to, was the role of legal precedent in sustaining a long-running campaign.

Before I dive too much into the overlap of law and gaming, let me share two personal anecdotes. The first is that I got into law school, way back in 1997, after sending the admissions committee a set of game rules I had published. The committee was, I assume, impressed by my ability to formulate a set of rules that would guide behavior; as that is, after all, the essence of law. The second is that my law school thesis, published in 1999, was an argument that game designs are functionally the law of massively multiplayer games. (Yes, I was able to play Everquest and call it legal research. Magna cum laude, baby.) The point being that the close kinship between law and gaming is an idea that’s been stirring in my mind for quite some time now, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to flesh it out.

For those who wisely avoided law school, let me quickly summarize what precedent is. A precedent is a legal ruling on a particular issue that can be used to help decide subsequent questions of law with similar issues. For instance, if a court is asked to decide whether a semiautomatic pistol is a legitimate weapon of self-defense, a previous ruling that revolvers were legitimate weapons of self-defense would be precedent. If the precedent is followed, it is called “binding.” If the precedent is ignored, the new case is said to be “distinguished” from the old by certain new facts. For instance, the court might distinguish pistols from revolvers by pointing out that their ammunition capacity is much greater.

What does this have to do with role-playing games? Harkening all the way back to my first column on GMing, I noted that the foundational role of the gamemaster was that of Judge, responsible for “ruling on grey areas not covered by the rules.” The process of ruling on grey areas creates precedent – or what we call “house rules”.

Is Your Game Common, or Civil?

How much precedent is going to matter will depend on whether your game is a “common law” or “civil law” game.

“Common law” originated in Old England as a history of legal rules created by judges when deciding disputes. The judges began with the traditional customs of how matters had been handled, and then over time built up a body of law based on those past precedents. Common law generally has little or no basis in anything written, except perhaps a foundational Constitution or some scattered medieval statutes. The main disadvantage of a common law system is that there is no written “code” that citizens can consult to understand the laws of the land.

On the other hand, “civil law” originated in the Roman Empire as a collection or code of statutes created by legislatures. Judges interpret the statutes, but their rulings are not said to create law. The main disadvantage of a civil law system is that citizens can’t depend on different judges to interpret the law the same way each time there’s a case.

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Faced with a question, a purely common-law court will look up what the court said last time it was confronted by a similar question. Meanwhile, a purely civil law court will look up what the most relevant statute says about the question and interpret it as it thinks best.. Since each system has weaknesses, most legal systems today use a mix of both civil and common law, with legislators creating the overall framework of statutes, while judges fill in the gaps using common law methods based on precedent. Under this system, citizens can look at statutes to learn the baseline of the law, and then refer to past cases to understand how judges have previously ruled.

The analogy to a gamemaster in a tabletop game should, I hope, be clear. The game designer is the legislator; the game rules are the civil law; the citizens are the players; and the decisions of the gamemaster about grey areas in the rules are the common law. A gamemaster running a game like Savage Worlds or Basic Fantasy will end up acting mostly like a common law judge, forced to make rulings about particular situations without written statutes. In this case, precedent matters a lot. Fairness demands precedent.

Fairness Demands Precedent

To prove this point, let’s illustrate what happens when precedent is ignored. Imagine that you are running Basic Fantasy, a rules light game modeled after the classic 1980s editions of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. During a desperate retreat, Marcus, your party’s fighter, wants to jump across a 15′ chasm to safety. “Fighters jumping across chasms” is not covered by the rules. You decide that this is a test of heroic agility best resolved with an ability check against Dexterity. If Marcus rolls less than his Dexterity he will succeed; if not he will fail and plummet to his death. Marcus rolls a 9, less than his Dexterity of 12, and succeeds.

Next round, Quintus, the magic-user, decides he too wants to escape across the chasm. You again consult your rulebook and note that “magic-users jumping across chasms” is not covered by the rules. You decide that this is clearly a test of herculean strength, and demand an ability check against Strength. Quintus, with a Strength of 7, fails the roll, and his player demands to know why Marcus got to roll against Dexterity but he had to roll against Strength for the same task.

What can you say to this criticism? That you’re the GM, your word is law, and it’s your right to rule however you like on situations not covered by the rules? That there is no written rule stating which attribute is to be used in resolving the success of jumps, so this is completely fair?

Let’s now imagine that a couple weeks have passed, and the party must now, once again, jump across this chasm. You once again check the rules and again see no game mechanic specifying the chances of success. You announce that each character has a 2 in 6 chance of falling in, but otherwise they jump across successfully. Morne, who has both 18 Dexterity and Strength, demands to know why he now has a 33% chance of falling in, and not a 10% chance. You shrug in. “There’s no rule that says it has to be an ability check,” you say.

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It should be obvious that this is not a healthy manner in which to run a game. A game run like this is a game that lacks fairness, common sense, and verisimilitude. Yet it’s very common when playing a rules light game to experience this sort of arbitrary decision-making on the part of the gamemaster out of an insistence that “there aren’t really any rules!” This attitude derives from a failure to recognize that, just like a common law judge creates law when he issues a ruling, a gamemaster creates game rules when he decides things. Fairness to the players demands that the rules for any given situation be the same for each player in each situation.

Rules Light Games are Just Games That Haven’t Been Played A Lot Yet

It’s common to call games like Basic Fantasy, which heavily depend on the GM’s judgment calls, rules-light games, in contrast to rules-heavy games like Pathfinder, which provide exhaustive mechanics. But with our deeper understanding of common law and civil law, we can see that a gamemaster’s ruling is functionally a law, just like a game designer’s rule is a law. Every rules-light game will over time become rules-heavy as its judge makes decisions about how things work. Rules-light and rules-heavy are only descriptive of the starting state of the game.

This being the case, when you are running a game, you need to remember that every time you issue a ruling, you have added to the “common law” of the game design. You need to write down your rulings, and apply them again to similar situations in the future – or distinguish them from prior rulings to explain why they aren’t being applied. The very best gamemasters do this so consistently that over time that their long-running campaigns begin to develop an entire body of house rules covering the many special situations that have arisen in their campaign.

My own body of D&D jurisprudence, developed over 67 sessions of Classic D&D in the last 18 months, is currently up to 27 pages. It includes rulings such as

  • “Spells which effect every creature in an area (e.g. Fireball) or a random number of creatures in an area (e.g. Confusion) cannot be cast on targets in melee without affecting opponents with whom the target(s) are fighting.”
  • Wands that are empty of charges no longer glow as magical.
  • When detection spells and items illuminate a target, the glow is visible to everyone as if cast by a torch.
  • The target of the Talisman of Pure Good is considered to be killed and his body destroyed. He cannot be raised or reincarnated, but a Wish spell could return him to life.

Of course, my 27 pages of rules are nothing compared to the old masters. After all, the entire corpus of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DM’s Guide is just Gary Gygax and crew’s common law rulings on Original Dungeons & Dragons.

So next time you look at that sleek little rules light game you just bought and think about what a breeze it’s going to be to play, remember that it’s not really rules light. You just haven’t played it enough yet to make it rules heavy.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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